Our trip in Japan was one of the most exciting ones I've ever done. The country offer everything from beautiful Japanese gardens with millions of cherry blossoms on the trees, delicious food, interesting temples, skycrapers, picturesque villages and peaceful Ryokans (traditional Japanese spa hotels) up in the mountaines. Along with historical sites like the memorial of the atomic bomb, castles and manga-animé quarters with everything that comes with that lifestyle.
Many of you have asked me for my best piece of advice for a totally wonderful stay in Japan, so here it comes, my compilation to you. Enjoy, and wishing you a just as lovely stay as we had!
How long? We stayed for a total of 11 days, plus the approximately 20 hours it took to fly to/from Japan from Brussels. It was just about the right amount of time to spend there, because after too many weeks of travelling non-stop my sightseeing quota gets filled and everything looks a bit the same to me. During our 11 days we visited Tokyo-Magome-Tsumago-Kanazawa-Kyoto-Hiroshima-Miyajima. Shirakawa and Takayama was also on our list, but we simply didn't have time for them.
Safety: Japan is the safest country I've ever been to, making it possible to travel also as a solo girl if you wish, without any problems. People are timid and will not really approach you unless you ask for help. Still I wouldn't take any stupid risks like walking on my own at night.
Money and prices: There are ATMs everywhere and you can pay by card in hotels and malls while almost never at museums, restaurants and metros. While the flights to Japan are reasonable (we flew with Etihad Airways), it's very expensive to stay in the country. Think London-New York or Stockholm. Accomodation prices ranged between 120-350 euros per night (the most expensive was the Ryokan, but it was only for one night with a 16 course dinner plus breakfast included, and definitely worth it, see more info below), dinner costs between 10-40 euros and the railway pass for a week costed nearly 300 euros. We mostly got take away lunch at supermakets and that was reasonable priced. Metro tickets in Kyoto and Tokyo are expensive and shopping is very expensive as well, while entrances to museums and parks are either free or costing about 5 euros. I would say it's a country well worth the money, and you shouldn't be on a too strict budget when visiting it.
Transport: Ahead of our trip we bought the Japan Rail Pass at a travel agency in Brussels. You need to buy them before entering the country, and exchange the voucher to the actual pass at the airport. Here it gets expensive. You pay for a week, two weeks etc. but once you have the pass you can travel unlimited with it. Since single tickets are even more expensive, those passes are a must. And you certainly get what you pay for - the trains are super fast and always on time! Metro cards in Tokyo are well worth it, because the transportation system is perfect, taking you everywhere in very little time. In Kyoto it was much more difficult, since they have metros, busses and trams, where you need to get separate tickets for them all. Try to plan you days so that you just need to use one of the different transportation systems per day, otherwise it gets very expensive.
Internet: it was not so common to have internet in cafés and restaurants, while all museums, Airbnbs and hotels have it.
Sending luggage: One of the absolutely best services of the Japanses high tech society was the Takuhaibin delivery system that you find in all SevenEleven shops (they are everywhere) plus hotels. We used it to send our luggage from Tokyo to our hotel in Kanazawa, leaving us with just a backpack for our hike in the mountains, and night at the Ryokan. Sending the luggage was very smooth and cheap, and it saved us a lot of logistical trouble.
Shopping: While they do have lots of fashionable shops, the fashion is so different from the European style (and much smaller sizes), that I found it difficult to find my souvenir dress (but I managed in the end!). My best piece of advice is to go to the huge 8 storey mall of Kyoto train station (where we got our iron tea pot and my souvenir dress), or the one at the Shibuya station in Tokyo. You do find a lot of souvenir shops at the touristic sites, of course where I got some gifts to my parents and for myself (chopsticks, cups, post cards Japanese tea and the most beautiful Japanese iron tea pot).
Tokyo: We spent two full days. Visit the Tokyo Skytree at night, it's a 634 meter high tower from where you have a lovely view over the city. In the day, go up the Metropolitan Government Building (free entrance) from where you can admire the city (and mount Fuji if it's clear weather). I also loved discovering the Ueno park (with a pond and super beautiful cherry trees) and the temples next to it. From there you can walk to the (super crazy) animé-manga area in Akihabara. In this colourful quarter you see people living their lives in those funny outfits. Tokyo Tower (a slimmer but higher Eiffel tower) is the most beautiful at sunset, the Imperial Palace Park has a very beautiful Japanese garden corner and the Shibuya crossing is a must-go. When the cars get red light thousands of people are crossing in all directions at the same time. Next to it you have a huge mall perfect for shopping.
Magome-Tsumago: Two very pretty and picturesque villages up in the Japanese Alps. The villages are very different from each other, so take your time exploring them both. The hike between them takes about three to four hours and it's not a very tough one, just make sure to bring enough water with you. Definitely a must-do if you're in Japan! A daytrip is enough, ending in:
Fukinomori: After the hike ending in Tsumago we got picked up by the shuttle service of Fukinomori, a totally adorable, super relaxing Ryokan (a small Japanese style hotel with hot spring baths), situated totally isolated from the rest of the world up in the mountains. This is a hidden gem and me and my Lieblingsmensch are still dreaming of returning there. The minute we entered there all the stress and other issues that might have preoccupied me disappeared and for once I felt totally relaxed. They take care of everything. You don't even need to bother about what to wear, because they give you those casual kimonos to change into. And they serve you a totally delicious and super interesting 16 (!!) course dinner (so you better do the hiking before, haha) as well as a delicious Japanese breakfast. The staff is totally adorable. And you get to use their spa section, with the onzen baths with hot spring water. It can't get better. I really, really wish that we'll return here one day.
Kanazawa: We spent a day and a half here and at the first sight it doesn't seem so interesting, but it once you've discovered its gems you. The Kanazawa castle is worth a visit as you pass it on your way to THE most beautiful Japanese garden in the country (at least according to us). It's called Kenrokuen garden and its 11,4 hectares is provides you with the most perfect landscape of the garden: spaciousness, tranquility, artifice, antiquity, water cources, and magnificent view from the garden. Kanazawa also has well preserved Samurai and Geisha-quarters that takes you back a few decades ago. You can enter former Geisha and Samurai houses as well.
Kyoto: Three full days were spent discovering Kyoto. With the difficult transport system and big distances between the sites, it is more difficult to get around here. But the city is well worth a visit! Make sure to visitKyoto station at night. From the top floor you can admire the lit-up site for free, and they have this super romantic pavilion on one of the wings. The imperial palace park is a must, an you can enter the site for free. It's super pretty and we took some of our most romantic pictures among the cherry trees and little stream floating through. Wake up early for a stoll at the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove (it's a completely different world), and make sure to also walk along the philosopher's path. Around Shinchijo you have lots of shops small and women walking around in kimonos. But the best reason to go here is for a matcha latte at the Ujicha Gion Tsujiri shop. You simply can't afford not to stop here, it's totally delicious. And there is always a long line to order for a reason ;-) The last must-see is Fushimi inari-taisha shrine. Just make sure to bring tons of patience and tolerance with you to this tourist trap, because while the other sites in Japan are having reasonably many visitors, this site is packed. It was not a very enjoyable visit (why don't they have the engraved wisdom words on the orange pillars translated also to English, so that we actually get get inspired?) it is something you would regret to miss out on. If I would had known, I would had visited this site early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the crowds.
Hiroshima: A peaceful and tranquil place surrounded by greenery. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park with a very well presented museum is a sad place of course, depicting and commemorating the victims of the atomic bomb attack. There is also a beautiful castle. A day trip from Kyoto in combination with Migayama is enough.
Migayama: A beautiful island with a cool shrine floating in the water, worth a few hours. Very scenic with wild deers walking around among the tourists. Combine it with a day trip to Hiroshima.